Meilana Gillard and the Brilliant Corners Jazz Festival

The saxophonist on hustling a living in New York, relocating to Belfast and working on album number two

For several years in the early 2000s, saxophonist Meilana Gillard was touted as a rising star of the New York jazz scene, having made her name performing in bands with some of the city’s heaviest hitters like bassist Christian McBride and saxophonist Greg Osby.

Indeed, Osby even produced her debut album, Day One, which was widely acclaimed following its release in 2009. But then things changed – apparently inexplicably, Gillard walked away from her New York career and moved to Belfast.

Now that the dust of her move has settled, Gillard explains what might appear to have been an act of madness: 'A number of things happened at once, like financial downfall, sick family, problems like stress,' she relates, 'and I wasn’t in a good space. It all got too much for me, so I had to just go.'

The decision to move to Belfast is not, perhaps, as strange as it sounds. Born in London, Gillard moved to America with her parents when she was five, but her mother has always retained links with the city of her birth – Belfast. When her parents decided to relocate to her mother’s home town, Gillard followed.

'They’d been here for a few years and I missed them,' Gillard admits. 'I was like, "I want to spend more time with them, because they’re not going to be around for ever."'

Growing up in Ohio, Gillard became a teenage jazz enthusiast. She attributes her love of the music to the influence of her grandfather and a former teacher. 'Jazz certainly piqued my interest at an early age,' she says. 'My grandfather used to like big band music, like the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and I loved that lush sound.

'Then, when I was 13, my high school band director sent me home with a recording of Stan Getz’s Body And Soul, and when I heard it I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I loved it so much.'

Gillard began to dream of moving to New York, still and always the epicentre of the jazz world. Enrolling at the prestigious New School in 2003 enabled her to realise that long-held dream. 'I wanted to be inspired, to have the possibility of going to jam sessions in clubs seven nights a week. There was just so much going on in New York.'

In New York, Gillard was taught by several distinguished professional musicians. One – drummer Charli Persip – had even played with seminal bebopper Dizzy Gillespie, a legend of the jazz fraternity.

'Charli was my ensemble teacher,' Gillard reminisces. 'He asked me to be in his big band and I got to compose the title track for his album, Intrinsic Evolution. The third record I ever purchased would have been Dizzy Gillespie At Newport and Charli played on that, so even just meeting him blew my mind. And then I’m in his band!'

Her reputation growing, Gillard came to the attention of Greg Osby, and the acclaimed saxophonist eventually produced her debut long player. 'He’s a very original artist himself,' Gillard muses. 'He really inspires you to be true to yourself.'

One Day is satisfyingly varied, with elements of hard bop, funk and soul apparent. Gillard attributes this to some of her teenage listening. 'Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Prince are all very natural influences and come out in what I do. I also love good hip-hop. But the tradition of jazz is very important to me. Without that, there’s no foundation.'

Following the release of her album, impressed critics variously compared Gillard to Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz, three of the greatest saxophonists in jazz history. Christian McBride even humorously nicknamed her Fran Getz. Gillard finds the praise embarrassing. 'Oh, man!' she cries. 'It makes me feel very good but at the same time, how can they think I sound like those masters?'

Despite such a reaction, however, life for Gillard in New York remained tough. Gillard, like hundreds of others on the scene, had to hustle for a living. Her advice for anyone atempting to establish themselves on the Big Apple scene is simple: 'Be prepared to not sleep very often. And have about three different things going on that give you money.

'For instance, before I left there was a week where I was teaching at a college in the Bronx, I was cashier at a grocery store, I had some $50 gigs with big bands and I played with Christian McBride at the Tribeca Performing Arts Centre. And that still was not enough. You have to go go go, take the gigs as they come and constantly try to get more.'

Since moving to Belfast Gillard has worked, in various contexts, with many of the north’s greatest musicians. Indeed, she recently recorded an album, JazznBelfast, under the band name the Dana Meilana 6 with singer Dana Masters, trumpeter Linley Hamilton, pianist Scott Flanigan, bassist Carl Harvey and drummer Steve Davis.

The album includes one original Gillard composition, ‘The Here And Now’. Gillard in fact regards composing as a fundamentally important part of her creativity. 'It’s just as important as playing, for me,” she asserts.

On the process of writing, Gillard explains that 'it starts with a melody that I hear and then I go to the piano and play that melody with different chord changes and see what works. And sometimes I use MIDI sequencing and modern computer techniques. It depends on the song. I don’t like to limit myself.”

Gillard also recently played in a showcase gig at Belfast’s Strand Cinema in which she accompanied Hamilton and others to masterfully recreate the classic John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman album My One And Only Love, on the 50th anniversary of its release.

The Hartman role was taken by Ken Haddock, better known locally as a pop and rock singer. 'That’s my favourite album,' enthuses Gillard. 'And I’m really proud of Ken because he’s a fantastic singer and so humble and he works really hard. I knew he was going to sing the hell out of it, but he didn’t think so. He always thinks, "Oh, I’m going to ruin it".'

Gillard is currently preparing a new solo album. Her intention is to multi-track several woodwind instruments, played by herself, on a repertoire of original compositions. 'I’m trying right now to write the album and I’m going to play bass clarinet, clarinet, flute and tenor saxophone,' she says.

And she is convinced that moving to Belfast was a positive move for her. 'I had to take a step back but I feel that it’s the best step back I could have taken because it has pushed me 20 steps forward emotionally, spiritually and mentally. I feel I’m really prepared for great things now.'

Meilana Gillard plays with the Jeremy Lyons Dectet at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre on March 26, as part of the Brilliant Corners Festival, which runs from March 26 – 29. See the full festival programme below, and visit the Brilliant Corners Festival website for booking information.